Of Cool Air and Fire

In storybook seasons, spring is the time of rebirth, but that’s because the storybooks were not written in Las Vegas, where spring is the season of bracing yourself for summer. Around here, October is the month for throwing open the windows and spending long weekends—give or take a few couch-bound hours with the NFL—out in the forgiving blue air of autumn.

It’s the time of year to hike Red Rock and catch Shakespeare in the Park and lounge on the lawn at a Wild Fest concert while the Ferris wheel spins slowly in the distance. It’s the time to look at the latest UNLV football score and sigh. It’s the time to start thinking about basketball.

But as the weekend of Oct. 15-16 approached, the most festive expectations in a city due for some festivity were all about wheels. The world’s top supercross racers were coming to Sam Boyd Stadium. NASCAR’s best truck racers were coming to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Skate virtuosi were descending on the Hard Rock for the Dew Tour championships. And, in the weekend’s marquee event, the Speedway was hosting the season finale of the IZOD IndyCar World Championships.

The Indy cars were just 11 laps into the 200-lap race when the weekend shattered. On a track that racer Danica Patrick had earlier described as “friggin fast,” a single swerve turned into a 15-car, 220-mph crash. In an instant, Dan Wheldon’s black-and-white No. 77 open-wheel racer was airborne and in flames.

Fourteen drivers emerged from the crash without serious injuries. Wheldon was flown to University Medical Center. His death was announced at 2:20 p.m. He was a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner with blue eyes and a ready smile and a sense of proportion about the meaning of glory and fame. He had a wife and a 2-year old and a 7-month-old. He had, as Ed Graney noted in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, cut back on his racing schedule to be with family and help his mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease.

He was 33 years old.

In the weeks ahead, there will be plenty of questions: Is the banked oval track at the Speedway too small at 1.5 miles for IndyCar speeds? Will open-wheel racing—which had been absent at the speedway since 2005—return? What does this mean for Las Vegas’ place in the racing world?

But as tragedy transforms into the customary saccharine-and-Tabasco mix of tribute and debate, something simpler will haunt us—the swiftness with which skies darken and the most glorious months reveal themselves as seasons of loss.

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